How Ryan Pace Built the Bears into a Division Champion

The Chicago Bears finally defeated the evil that is the Green Bay Packers, and the win could not have been any sweeter.

The last time Chicago was in the playoffs, they suffered multiple counts of heartbreak delivered by the Packers. Way back in 2010, a Week 17 matchup between the two teams would decide the Packers’ playoff fate: win and get in, or lose and go home. The Packers won that day and snuck in as the NFC’s 6th seed.

A few short weeks later, the bitter rivals met again, this time in the NFC Championship game at Soldier Field in Chicago. After Bears’ starting QB Jay Cutler left the game with a knee injury, the helpless Bears offense struggled to put up any sort of points. The Packers went on to win the NFC Championship 21-14, and proceeded to beat out the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl.

This marked the beginning of a Packers stretch of dominance over the rest of the NFC North that included historic blowouts and humiliation of the Chicago Bears. The Bears won just two games between that 2010 NFC Championship loss and the division-clinching win last Sunday. Each of those two wins happened to be the first time Bears head coaches Marc Trestman and John Fox faced the Packers, respectively.

Bears fans were forced to stand their ground and defend their sorry team as their foes to the North snickered at the Bears dysfunction and losing seasons.

Fast forward to 2015. The Bears have fired head coach Marc Trestman and general manager Phil Emery after two dreadful seasons. The Bears hired New Orleans’ Saints scout Ryan Pace to be their new general manager, and he hired former Broncos and Panthers head coach John Fox.

At the time, the Fox hiring looked like a great decision. Chicago needed a change of culture after Trestman lost control of the players during his tenure, and the Bears also needed a guy like Fox to come in and fix the awful defense.

Now, it is the end of the 2017 season, and the Bears have not won more than six games in a season under three years of Fox. Although the win column looks bleak, Pace has brought in a plethora of young talent to his team. Offensively, he got franchise QB Mitchell Trubisky, RBs Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen and OL Cody Whitehair most notably.

Defensively, he’s brought in safeties Eddie Jackson and Adrian Amos, CB Prince Amukamara, LBs Danny Trevathan, Nick Kwiatkoski, and Leonard Floyd, and DLs Eddie Goldman, Roy Robertson-Harris, Akiem Hicks, and Jonathan Bullard. Just as he’d promised when he was hired, Pace built his team mostly through the draft. There was still more work to be done, however. The Bears offense was stagnant and Trubisky was struggling under Fox’s guidance as a rookie. Pace knew that if Trubisky didn’t pan out, he was going to lose his job. So in the 2018 NFL offseason, he cashed in.

Pace started by firing Fox on New Year’s Day, and led a one week search in which he conducted six interviews in five days to find the franchise’s 16th head coach. He started in-house with defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who had built a top 10 defense in three years with the Bears. Pace, CEO Ted Phillips, and Chairman George McCaskey set out to continue their search in Minnesota, where they talked to then-Vikings offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator George Edwards.

They then went out east to New England, where they spoke with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. From there, they headed South to Philadelphia, where they had a great talk with QB coach John DeFilippo. There were many reports that the interview went “extremely well” with DeFilippo, who said that he would retain Fangio as defensive coordinator if the Bears hired him. After the interview in Philly, the Bears headed to Kansas City, where they interviewed offensive coordinator Matt Nagy. There, Pace saw what he was looking for all along. Nagy was the only candidate who directly told the Bears, “I want to be the Bears head coach because…” and Nagy’s reason was Mitchell Trubisky.

During the 2017 Draft, Nagy and the Chiefs loved Trubisky, and were a real threat to move up to the 2nd pick in that draft to select him. Nagy got to know Trubisky very well during that time, and liked him both as a player and a person. Nagy’s guidance has bode well for Trubisky through almost one full season. Trubisky has had a massive year two jump, and it sure shows with the Bears current record of 11-4.

The Bears splurged in free agency. They gave Trubisky some great weapons by signing WRs Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel to big contracts, as well as TE Trey Burton to a deal. All three of the players just mentioned have been huge for the Bears offense so far. Now that Trubisky had gotten some weapons on the outside, things opened up for RBs Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen in both the run and pass game. A couple underrated free agent signees were QBs Tyler Bray and Chase Daniel, who each have extensive knowledge of Nagy’s playbook. There is no doubt that their mentoring has been a big part of Trubisky’s big jump. Other additions in free agency were K Cody Parkey and OLB Aaron Lynch, who have each been nice pickups in free agency.

In the first round of the draft, they picked up Georgia inside linebacker Roquan Smith, who is a perfect (and I mean perfect) fit in Fangio’s defense. Smith is just a few tackles short of the Bears franchise rookie tackles record (125, set by Brian Urlacher in 2000), and the way he’s progressed throughout the season, he looks like a future all-pro. In the second round, the Bears filled a huge hole at left guard with Iowa C/G James Daniels. He’s been so good this season. When the Bears faced the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday Night Football in Week 14, he put on a clinic as he shut down then-MVP candidate Aaron Donald, who just broke the NFL record for defensive tackle sacks in a season with 19.5. Also in the second round, the Bears drafted WR Anthony Miller, who has quickly turned into one of Trubisky’s favorite targets. In the later rounds, they picked up inside linebacker Joel “Iggy” Iyiegbuniwe (ee-yig-boon-ee-way), who has turned into a special teams ace, and DT Bilal Nichols, who is among the top-graded rookies on the interior defensive line.

All through the offseason and into training camp, the Bears kept on reiterating that they were not necessarily going to have an immediate turnaround, and it was “not going to happen overnight.” But once they got into training camp, Nagy told Pace that they had the talent to compete right away. That gave Pace the freedom to give up a plethora of draft picks for all-pro, game-changing pass rusher Khalil Mack of the Oakland Raiders, who was on the trade block because of a contract impasse.

Mack wanted a contract that would make him the highest paid defensive player in NFL history. Raiders owner Mark Davis, who has one of the lowest net worths among NFL owners with about $500 million, wasn’t exactly swimming in cap space, especially with the team building a brand new stadium in Las Vegas as they prepare to move there. Davis and newly hired head coach Jon Gruden (who also has the power of GM) could not/did not want to pay Mack, so they traded him.

The Bears immediately signed Mack to a 6-year, $141 million contract extension (about $23.5 million per year), making him the highest paid defensive player in NFL history. The Mack trade has paid dividends for Chicago, who sits atop the NFC North after four straight last place finishes. Mack and Fangio lead easily the NFL’s best defense. The Bears rank first in Football Outsiders’ DVOA (Defensive-adjusted Value Over Average) at -25.6%. The Ravens are the next closest at -12.9%. Click this link to see the explanation of the DVOA system: There is no doubt that Chicago would have a good defense without Mack, but I doubt that they would be the best in football.

Trubisky, meanwhile, has taken a massive leap from last year to last year. Yeah, he’s had some bad games, but he’s also had five games where he’s been above a passer rating of 120, which is outstanding. In fact, Trubisky has a total QBR (quarterback rating) of 71.1, good for 4th best in the NFL among players who have taken at least 100 quarterback snaps (behind Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, and Patrick Mahomes). QBR is believed by many to be more meaningful than passer rating, because QBR adjusts to dropped passes by receivers, yards after the catch (YAC), etc. So people who say that Trubisky only benefits from screens and short passes where there is a lot of YAC are obviously not doing their homework.

Ryan Pace has done such an amazing job with the Bears, and he’s not done yet. You might think that they can’t bring in top talent because of their lack of first round picks over the next couple years, but Pace has done some of his best work on the last two days of the draft, bringing in players like Eddie Jackson, Tarik Cohen, and Jordan Howard. And even though they are paying Mack that huge contract, they still have a good bit of cap flexibility with Trubisky on his rookie contract for another few years yet. Expect the Bears to be back even stronger next year and the years after that, especially with Trubisky gaining more experience with his new system and new weapons.